Skip to main content

Full text of "Gilbert Thompson"

See other formats


Memorial Papers . . 
of the Society . . . 
of Colonial Wars in 
District of Columbia 
No. 5, 1910 .... 




By 

MARCUS BENJAMIN 




GILBERT 
THOMPSON 



T5B4- 



GILBERT 
THOMPSON 




^ |fVxrvY^W\^xrvv-x 



GILBERT THOMPSON. 

Geographer, U. S. Geological Survey; born in Blackstone, Mass., 
March 21, 1839 ; elected member of the Society of Colonial Wars, 
June 5, 1893; elected Historian, December 19, 1900; died in 
Washington, D. C., June 8, 1909. 

WE have gathered tonight to do homage to 
the memory of one who was a loyal 
member of the Society of Colonial Wars 
in the District of Columbia. With respect and 
affection let us briefly recall the career of him who 
ever testified by his life to a firm belief that " rev 
erence for the church, devotion to country, and 
pride of ancestry " should be the guiding principles 
of every true and honorable American. 

Gilbert Thompson was born in Blackstone, Mas 
sachusetts, on March 21, 1839. On his father s 
side, he was of English ancestry, but as the rec 
ords of our Society fail to mention any of his 
paternal ancestors beyond his own father, we may 
safely assume that their ways were "ways of 
peace." Later research, however, has shown his 
connection with David Thompson who was Secre 
tary to Sir Ferdinando Gorges of the Plymouth 
Colony and afterward first "Lord-Proprietary of 
Maine." During the absence of Gorges in Eng 
land, David Thompson acted in his place. 






4 GILBERT THOMPSON. 

His mother s family, from which his given name 
was derived, came to New England in 1632 and 
settled in Massachusetts. It has always been 
claimed that this branch of the Gilbert family 
included among its sons, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, 
half-brother to Sir Walter Raleigh and famous for 
his association with the Virginia colony. It was 
through this family that Major Thompson based 
his descent from John Alden and his wife Priscilla, 
William Bradford, William Mullins, and Myles 
Standish, who came over in the Mayflower in 1620 
to find " freedom to worship God." 

His colonial ancestors proved their faith by 
duty rendered to the State, for in addition to these 
Pilgrim ancestors, he placed on record in the 
archives of our Society his descent from Samuel 
Nash, also of the Plymouth Colony, and from 
Josiah Keith of Easton, Massachusetts, both of 
whom did valiant service in the early French and 
Indian wars. 

Not to mention his ancestors who served in the 
War of the Revolution would be a cruel injustice 
to our late member. His great-grandfather, Na 
thaniel Gilbert, marched with the minute men of 
Easton, Massachusetts, on the alarm of Lexington 
and later served with the colonial militia in Rhode 
Island. Of special interest, however, is his great- 
grandmother, Deborah Sampson, who served as a 



GILBERT THOMPSON. 5 

private under the name of Robert Shurtleff. It is 
said that " she was at the capture of Cornwallis, 
was wounded at Tarry town, and now receives a 
pension from the United States." Her interesting 
career is fully described in The Female Review, 
under the title of "Memoir of an American Young 
Lady," "whose life and character are peculiarly 
distinguished, being a continental soldier, for nearly 
three years, in the late American war, during 
which time she performed the duties of every 
department, into which she was called with punc 
tual exactness, fidelity, and honor, and preserved 
her chastity inviolate by the most artful conceal 
ment of her sex." 

The military records of his ancestors would not 
be complete if I did not add that his grandfather, 
Judson Gilbert, served in the artillery with the 
contingent from Massachusetts during the War of 
1812, and his father, William Venner Thompson, 
participated in the suppression of the Dorr Rebel 
lion in Rhode Island in 1 842. It was Major Thomp 
son s proud boast that representatives from every 
generation of his family had been under arms 
for the defense of either colony, state, or country 
from the landing of the Pilgrims in 1620 to the 
War with Spain in 1898. 

Passing to his own career, it may be said that 
his earlier years were spent in the family home in 



6 GILBERT THOMPSON. 

Blackstone, but as he grew to boyhood, he accom 
panied his parents to one of those interesting New 
England communities, established under the leader 
ship of Adin Ballou, at Hopedale, Massachusetts, 
where he remained until manhood, and where he 
received the usual academic training. A fondness 
for books led him to determine to become an 
editor, and, as was the custom in those days, he 
learned the printer s art, setting type at the case 
for a time in the office of the publications of the 
community. 

The sentiment of the Hopedale community was 
strongly abolitionist and notwithstanding the fact 
that one of the leading tenents advocated by its 
founder was that of non-resistance, it was but nat 
ural when the call for soldiers came in those dark 
days at the beginning of the Civil War that young 
Thompson promptly offered his services for the 
preservation of the Union. 

The splendid fighting blood of his ancestors 
still coursed strongly in his veins and he was true 
to the old motto of the Somersetshire branch of the 
Gilbert family, "I would rather die than change." 

He was given duty with the Battalion of Engi 
neers and for three years served his country faith 
fully at the front with that branch of the army. 
During 1864 he was assigned as assistant engineer 
to service at headquarters of the Army of the 



GILBERT THOMPSON. 7 

Potomac and then, after the surrender of General 
Lee, he was mustered out. A commission in the 
regular army was offered to him but he wisely 
declined preferment in the military service and de 
termined to devote his talents to the more con 
genial occupations of peace. 

Of his experiences in the army he has left 
abundant record which as a history of the Engi 
neer Troops is soon to be issued in the series of 
" Occasional Papers of the Engineer School U. S. 
Army." And from his diaries it is probable that a 
further contribution may be made to the literature 
of the Civil War which will give new and interest 
ing details in regard to the special line of work in 
which he was engaged and at the same time add 
valuable information concerning the high motives 
that actuated many of the young men of that time 
to offer their services to their country. 

At the close of the Civil War Thompson settled 
in Washington where his knowledge of topography 
combined with the experience gained in military 
service was promptly taken advantage of by the 
War Department and he was employed to make 
surveys and maps of the battlefields of Virginia 
and Maryland. On the completion of this work 
his superior training in topography, in engineering, 
and in geography, at once led to his connection 
with the national geological and exploring expedi- 



8 GILBERT THOMPSON. 

tions then active in studying the natural resources 
of the western territories. His knowledge of men 
and his ability to control them soon marked his 
fitness as a leader, and he was given charge of 
parties in the field. 

Attention has recently been called by a popular 
magazine* to the fact that so long ago as 1882 
Major Thompson having under him a number of 
men "whose character appeared dubious, and being 
at a distance from camp, conceived the idea of 
issuing his pay orders with his own finger print on 
them as a check upon possible dishonesty. His 
method was identical with the method that would 
be used in a bank to-day." The practice that he 
followed was to write the amount of the order 
over the finger print. Thus he anticipated a 
method that is now recognized as the only possible 
means of positively identifying an individual. 

He continued until his death in the service of 
the national surveys, attaining the rank of Geog 
rapher in the United States Geological Survey. 
As the years came and went his time was occupied 
in field work during the summers and in the office 
in Washington during the winters, working up the 
information gained. Although as he grew older, 
the western trips were gradually relinquished to 
younger men. It was during this period of explo- 

*Century Magazine, October, 1909, page 920. 



GILBERT THOMPSON. 9 

ration that he climbed Mount Shasta, being the first 
white man to take pack animals to its summit, a 
feat before believed to be impossible. As a maker 
of maps his skill was superior, and in that duty he 
was active to the end. His drawing was the admi 
ration and despair of younger men; it was said 
that he drew so that you could see the country 
portrayed. His name printed on a map is a cer 
tificate of its correctness and is so recognized 
wherever the maps of the U. S. Geological Survey 
are used. 

In 1889, when the National Guard of the Dis 
trict of Columbia was reorganized under General 
Albert A. Ordway, a corps of engineers was pro 
vided for and Thompson was selected to organize 
the corps, the command of which was given to him. 
Although past the age of life when men ordinarily 
display an interest in volunteer military service, he 
brought to his work of organization the energy 
and enthusiasm which was characteristic of him, 
and in a short time completed its formation, draw 
ing his men from the technical bureaus of the 
Government. He was so successful in attracting 
men of scientific training to the corps that in a short 
time it was recruited to more than three times 
its authorized strength and it was finally mustered 
into the service as a four-company battalion, of 
which he was commissioned Major. At the out- 



io GILBERT THOMPSON. 

break of the War with Spain, the engineer corps 
of the District was transferred to the Second In 
fantry, and at that time, he was discharged from 
the service. Anxious to serve his country, how 
ever, he made application for a commission as an 
engineer officer, and took and passed the exami 
nation for it. 

When the Society of the Colonial Wars was 
organized in the District of Columbia, Major 
Thompson early became a member and was num 
ber fifteen on the list of membership. Our Society 
appealed strongly to his " pride of ancestry " for 
his interest in his forbears had already led him 
into the fascinating study of genealogy and he had 
collected manuscript data on the Gilbert and the 
Sampson lines, and to this, later, he added similar 
information in regard to the Thompson family. 
For many years he was connected with the Com 
mittee on Historical Documents of which he was 
for a time chairman. His success in that connec 
tion led to his election in 1900 to the office of His 
torian, a place which he then filled continuously 
until his death, holding the office longer than any 
of his predecessors. The first of the series of 
"Historical Papers" issued by the Society, entitled 
"The Colonial Boundaries of Virginia and Mary 
land" was written by him. This paper, accom 
panied by a map drawn by his own hand, set the 



GILBERT THOMPSON. n 

pace for the high standard of similar papers that 
have since been published by us, and I may add 
that it received well-merited recognition, not only 
from our sister organizations, but also from his 
torical societies throughout the country; and the 
small edition was soon exhausted. He further en 
riched this same series of Historical Papers by a 
communication on " Historical Military Powder 
Horns," the fruit of many years of patient study 
of the subject. It was illustrated with eleven full- 
page plates of powder horns, the pen work of 
which was also his. Likewise he is entitled to 
credit for the fourth paper of the series entitled 
" Historical Address at the Dedication of the Brad- 
dock Boulder," for it was compiled and carried 
through the press by him. 

Of his devotion to the interests of our Society 
we have a conspicuous illustration in the loving 
care with which he inaugurated the legislation and 
secured the making of the two beautiful flags of 
which we are so justly proud. The one which is 
the special flag of our District of Columbia Society 
was only obtained after months of careful study as 
to the best materials with which it could be made 
and few of us who were present on the occasion 
when it first greeted us can ever forget his enthu 
siasm as he displayed it, explaining with the utmost 
care every element of its manufacture. Later the 



12 GILBERT THOMPSON. 

flag of our Country the stars and stripes became 
ours in consequence of his persistent efforts. His 
devotion to our flags manifested itself whenever 
they were used. At the church services he was 
our standard bearer and proudly preceded the 
procession, holding aloft the precious emblem. 

Another conspicuous evidence of his devotion 
to the interests of our Society that is worthy of 
record may be mentioned: I refer to the painstak 
ing efforts he ever manifested to save any frag 
ment of information that he could acquire concern 
ing the route followed by General Braddock in 
1755 on his way toward Frederick, after leaving 
Georgetown. As the fragments came to him they 
were woven into permanent knowledge and pre 
served for all time by insertion in the proper Atlas 
sheets of the U. S. Geological Survey. Had Ma 
jor Thompson been spared longer to us, the entire 
route would have been presented to the Society in 
one of those perfect papers which it was his great 
pleasure to prepare for us. As it is, I have been 
fortunate, through the courtesy of Mr. H. S. Lewis, 
one of his colleagues, to secure a map that shows 
such portions of the route as he had been able to 
locate. In recent years the route followed from 
Frederick to Fort Duquesne has been critically 
examined by Mr. John K. Laycock who piloted a 
a number of college students over the entire dis- 



GILBERT THOMPSON 




i 4 GILBERT THOMPSON. 

tance on foot It has resulted in marking the chief 
points on the historic road followed by Braddock, 
and it was Major Thompson s ambition that our 
Society should continue the work by taking up 
that portion of the route that extends from the 
District toward Frederick, the beginning of which 
this Society so appropriately marked a few years 
ago by the boulder which was placed in the Cathe 
dral Close. 

In addition to his membership in the Society of 
Colonial Wars in the District of Columbia, he was 
a charter member of the Society of the Sons of 
the American Revolution in the District of Colum 
bia and of the Society of the War of 1812, serving 
the last-named with zeal and fidelity as its Regis 
trar up to the time of his death. By virtue of his 
own services he was a member of the Grand Army 
of the Republic and of the Society of the Army of 
the Potomac. He was one of the incorporators of 
the National Geographic Society, and was a mem 
ber of the Society of the Oldest Inhabitants in the 
District of Columbia. 

It is not easy to write either in detail or at length 
of Major Thompson s personal character; but a 
sympathy and freshness of enthusiasm and a re 
markable interest in everything that pertained to 
his work were striking characteristics. He found 
recreation in music and was a sympathetic per- 



GILBERT THOMPSON. 15 

former on the violin, but with that remarkable 
persistence of his, he studied that wonderful instru 
ment in many ways. The construction of the 
violin itself, the relation of the f-holes to the 
volume of sound, the effect of different varnishes 
upon the quality of tone, were all subjects to which 
he gave much time and thought. Nor was it alone 
this phase of art which interested him ; for his skill 
with his pen, which has already been alluded to, 
led to facility in handling the brush, as many water- 
colors now preserved by his family, testify. Also 
he was particularly clever in that branch of art 
called pyrography. With a hot instrument he 
burnt into wood strong and picturesque sketches 
which were much sought after by those who appre 
ciated that kind of work. 

Religion was his consolation, and he was a reg 
ular attendant at the services of the Protestant 
Episcopal Church, being for many years a com 
municant of St. Andrew s, but more recently of 
St. Michael and All Angels , where his religious 
activities found recognition by an election to the 
vestry, a place which he held at the time of his 
death. 

His last illness was very brief, and his sufferings 
slight; for the end came quickly. Happy in his 
family, rich with appreciation from his colleagues, 
and with his life s work well done, he passed into 



16 GILBERT THOMPSON. 

the hereafter, and now he is at rest at Arlington, 
surrounded by the many comrades, who, like him 
self, were ever ready to yield their lives to pre 
serve their country s honor. 

Gilbert Thompson was a true and honorable 
American gentleman, and of a type which we may 
all do well to emulate. 

After lifes fitful fever, he sleeps well 
and now 

"He wears a truer crown 
Than any wreath that man can weave him." 

Do not the words from Kipling s Recessional 
seem to apply with special fitness to him? 

The tumult and the shouting dies 
The captains and the kings depart 

Still stands Thine ancient Sacrifice, 
"An humble and a contrite heart" 




LIST OF PUBLICATIONS OF THE 

SOCIETY OF COLONIAL WARS IN THE DISTRICT OF 
COLUMBIA, ORGANIZED MAY 20, 1893. 



Register of the Society. 1897. With portrait of Richard Worsam 
Meade, Rear-Admiral, U.S.N. pp. 124. 

Register of the Society. 1904. With frontispiece of badge of 
the Society of Colonial Wars, portrait of Francis Asbury Roe, Rear- 
Admiral, U.S.N., First Governor of the Society, and other officers. 
Twenty-two portraits, pp. 214. 

MEMORIAL PAPERS. 

No. i. George Brown Goode. By A. Howard Clark. With 
portrait, pp. 8. 1896. 

No. 2. Charles Frederick Tiffany Beale. By Marcus Benjamin. 
With portrait, pp. 13. 1902. 

No. 3. William Herman Wilhelm, Captain, U.S.A. By Ethan 
Allen Weaver. With portrait, pp. 9. 1902. 

No. 4. Francis Asbury Roe, Rear-Admiral, U.S.N. By Marcus 
Benjamin. With portrait and eight other illustrations, pp. 35. 1903. 

No. 5. Gilbert Thompson. By Marcus Benjamin. With portrait, 
pp. 18. 1910. 

HISTORICAL PAPERS. 

No. i. The Colonial Boundaries of Virginia and Maryland. By 
Gilbert Thompson. W T ith map. pp. 8. 1899. 

No. 2. An American Sea Captain of Colonial Times. By Francis 
Asbury Roe, Rear-Admiral, U.S.N. pp. u. 1900. 

No. 3. Historical Military Powder-horns. By Gilbert Thompson. 
With eleven illustrations, pp. 16. 1901. 

No. 4. Historical Address at Dedication of the Braddock Boulder, 
Nov. 10, 1907. By Marcus Benjamin. With four illustrations, pp. 
1 6. 1908. 

No. 5. Colonel Joseph Belt. By Caleb Clarke Magruder, Jr. 
With Patent and illustration of "Chevy Chase " manor-house, pp. 
36. 1909. 

MISCELLANEOUS. 

Address of Welcome, by his Excellency, Governor Francis A. 
Roe, U.S.N., at first dinner of the Society, December 19, 1893. pp. 8. 

Preliminary draft of a Constitution, printed upon half-sheets and 
sent to members for suggestions, pp. 18. November 1894. 

The preceding was adopted and printed in February, 1895. A 
circular of four pages, with preamble and qualifications for member 
ship, was printed, 1895 ; also, a similar circular, giving list of mem 
bers, was printed January, 1896. 



A list of membership is published annually as a circular, pp. 4. 

The Year Book and Register of the Society, 1897, contains the 
Constitution and By-Laws as amended to that aate. 

Preliminary draft of Constitution, printed and sent to members 
for suggestions. With cover, pp. 17. April, 1902. 

The preceding was adopted without change, May 13, 1902, and 
printed, with embossed seal of the Society on the cover, pp. 16. 

First Service, Sunday, February 12, 1905. St. John s Church, 
Georgetown, D. C. (With embossed seal.) pp. 12. 

Second Annual Service, Sunday, February 18, 1906. St. John s 
Church, Washington. (With embossed seal.) pp. 12. 

Third Annual Service, Sunday, February 17, 1907. Epiphany 
Church, Washington. (Without seal.) pp. 12. 

Dedication service, Sunday, November 10, 1907. Cathedral 
Grounds, D. C. One illustration, of the Braddock tablet and 
boulder, pp. 12. 

Fourth Annual Church Service, Sunday, April 26, 1908. Christ 
Church, Georgetown, D. C. (Without seal.) pp. 8. 

Fifth Annual Church Service, Sunday, May 2, 1909. St. John s 
Church, Washington. (Without seal.) pp. 9. 

Sixth Annual Church Service, Sunday, May 8, 1910. St. John s 
Church, Washington. (Without seal.) pp. 9. 

Dedication Service, Sunday, October 30, 1910. Colonel Ninian 
Beall memorial. St. John s Church, Georgetown, D. C. W T ith 
illustration of tablet and boulder, pp. 10. 

CALEB CLARKE MAGRUDER, Jr., 

Historian. 
December 15, 1910. 






UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA LIBRARY